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Getting an Education - The Voucher Controversy

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Many people believe that problems like large class sizes, poor teacher training, and lack of computers and supplies in many public schools are unsolvable within the current public school system. One solution proposed in the early 1990s was the school voucher system: the government would provide a certain amount of money each year to parents in the form of a voucher to enroll their children at the school of their choice, either public or private. School vouchers have since become a highly polarized issue, with strong opinions both for and against the idea.

The National Education Association (NEA), a union of teachers and one of the larger unions in the country, immediately objected to school vouchers, arguing that voucher programs divert money from the public education system and make the current problems worse. The union also argued that giving money to parents who choose to send their child to a religious or parochial school is unconstitutional.

Supporters of the measure claim that parents should be able to choose the best educational environment for their children. They also argue that vouchers would give all people, not just the wealthy or middle class, the opportunity for a better education for their children in private schools. Most importantly, supporters believe that making the educational system a "free market" enterprise, in which parents could choose which school their children would attend, would force the public educational system to provide a higher standard of education in order to compete.

George W. Bush was elected president of the United States in 2000. Throughout his campaign Bush called for national education reform, including the possible use of vouchers. During the legislative process of getting the No Child Left Behind Act (PL 107–110) (NCLB) through the U.S. Congress, Bush agreed to drop the voucher provisions from the legislation, recognizing that debate on the vouchers issue could prevent the bill from being passed. On January 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act became law without specific provisions for a nationwide voucher program.

Frustrated at the national level, supporters of vouchers turned to state and local governments. Programs launched in Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio provided students

TABLE 6.1

Estimated number of participants in elementary and secondary education and in higher education, fall 2002
[In millions]
All levels (elementary, secondary, and degree-granting) Elementary and secondary schools Degree-granting institutions
Participants Total Public Private Total Public Private
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Note: Includes enrollments in local public school systems and in most private schools (religiously affiliated and nonsectarian). Excludes subcollegiate departments of institutions of higher education and federal schools. Elementary and secondary includes most kindergarten and some nursery school enrollment. Excludes preprimary enrollment in schools that do not offer first grade or above. Degree-granting institutions include full-time and part-time students enrolled in degree-credit and nondegree-credit programs in universities, other 4-year colleges, and 2-year colleges that participated in Title IV federal financial aid programs. Data for teachers and other staff in public and private elementary and secondary schools and colleges and universities are reported in terms of full-time equivalents. Detail may not sum to totals due to rounding.
SOURCE: "Table 1. Projected Number of Participants in Educational Institutions, by Level and Control of Institution: Fall 2002," in Digest of Education Statistics, 2002, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d02/tables/PDF/table1.pdf (accessed September 16, 2004)]
Total 78.3 60.3 53.7 6.6 18.0 13.6 4.4
Enrollment 69.2 53.6 47.6 6.0 15.6 12.0 3.6
Teachers and faculty 4.3 3.5 3.1 0.4 0.8 0.5 0.2
Other professional administrative and support staff 4.8 3.2 2.9 0.3 1.6 1.1 0.5

FIGURE 6.1

in some overcrowded or poorly performing schools with vouchers that could be used for private tuition. All of these programs were met with court challenges. A landmark decision came on June 27, 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of public money for religious school tuition in Cleveland, Ohio, calling the city's

FIGURE 6.2

voucher plan "a program of true private choice." In spring 2004 eleven states had school voucher programs functioning in selected areas or statewide: Florida, Iowa, Colorado, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maine, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Public School Choice—No Child Left Behind and Charter Schools

In lieu of a voucher program, the No Child Left Behind Act offered a public school choice program. Parents of students enrolled in "failing" public schools were allowed to move their children to a better-performing public or charter school. Local school districts were required to provide this choice and also provide students with transportation to the alternative school.

Public charter schools are funded by government money and run by a group under an agreement, or charter, with the state that exempts it from many state or local regulations that govern most public schools. In return for these exemptions and funding, the school must meet certain standards. In 2001–02 thirty-nine states allowed charter schools, with 2,348 in operation. Although charter schools served less than 1% of public elementary and secondary students in 2001–02, the idea has been increasing in popularity since Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991. The No Child Left Behind Act authorized $300 million to help local communities and states fund charter schools, as well as $150 million to encourage innovative approaches to funding charter school construction and infrastructure needs.

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